Hey guys, Welcome to my first real post. Today, as the title may give away, I’m profiling the American Black Duck. When I decided what I wanted to do with this blog, I had to decide how. I mean, if I’m going to profile a different species every time, how do I pick where to start? And what comes next? I decided the best way to do it was to go to my eBird, and sort my life list by date (earliest to most recent), and then just go down the line. So here we are, at American Black Duck!
The American Black duck is a fairly large duck, about the same size as a Mallard. They’re dabbling ducks, which means they typically don’t dive, but rather stick their butts up in the air while they dunk their heads under water looking for food.
What’s the first thing you notice about this duck? Well, I don’t know, because I’m not you. But the first thing I notice is that it’s not black. Also, it looks very much like a Mallard. In fact, the two species are very closely related. They even sometimes produce hybrids which can make the whole ID thing even more challenging. (Side note: I may from time to time mention bird taxonomy. Taxonomy can be very confusing, and contentious amongst ornithologists, and your average “backyard birders” alike, so I’m going to avoid the arguments and state things in as broad a term as possible lol.) Anyway, like most beginning birders, I found myself trying to figure out if that mallard I was seeing was dark enough to possibly be a black duck. As I spent more time birding, and more time with birders, I picked up a few tips that can really help when it comes to identifying an American Black Duck vs. a female Mallard.
First of all, yes, an American Black Duck is darker than your average female Mallard. I like to think of the coloration as more of a cool, chocolate brown, while a Mallard is a lighter, warmer shade of brown. Of course, sometimes color alone isn’t the thing that solidifies the ID. Next time you’re unsure, check the bill! A female Mallard has an orange bill with darker mottling on it. It’s almost never one solid color. The American Black Duck, on the other hand, has a solid colored bill (clear of any mottling.) The bill will be either bright yellow (male) or olive green (female.) For me, bill color is the thing I look to more than anything. (We can talk mallard eclipse plumage complicating matters, but I think I’ll save that for the Mallard post.) Another thing I look for on a black duck is the speculum. You ever notice that blue stripe outlined in white on a Mallard’s wing? That stripe is known as the speculum, and on an American black Duck, it’s purple, not blue, and has no white borders (seen on the duck on the right,in the pic below.)
With time and practice, and seeing enough of them, it becomes easier and easier to tell them apart. I remember standing in Central Park with a colleague of mine. We were looking at the ducks, and I was trying to point out a black duck among the mallards. No matter what, he just wasn’t seeing it. I pointed the bird out, told him what to look for, but he couldn’t see it. I was dumbfounded. How could he not? Of course when I think back to when I first started trying to figure it out, I get it. Sometimes birds all look alike…until they don’t. All that said, individuals do vary and (once you add in the hybrids) sometimes even experienced birders have a hard time.
I’ve always personally liked the American Black Duck. They just look, I don’t know, sleeker than the Mallard. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but I’ve always found it kind of fun to try and pick them out from a group of Mallards. We all have to find our own ways of having fun I suppose! That’ll do it for this installment. (Speaking of, I realized I never mentioned if I had an upload schedule. Well, we’re going to start out with a new post every Tuesday and Friday and see how that works out) Come back next time when the featured bird will be…. let me look it up…. oh… the Rock Pigeon. Well, they’re birds too I guess!